Chris Ishii was an American animator and comic artist of Japanese descent. After the Japanese military attack on Pearl Harbor (1941), he was one of several Japanese-American citizens interned in U.S. concentration camps as a preventive measure. During this imprisonment, he drew a humor comic strip, 'Lil' Neebo' (1942-1943), for the amusement of his fellow inmates. It was published in the camp newspapers and even continued by other cartoonists after Ishii signed up for military service in the U.S. Army. Throughout his career, he worked as an animator for Walt Disney and UPA, but also co-founded his own studio Focus Productions. Ishii was a creative director on the 1974 unaired Mad Magazine TV special and responsible for the animated segment in Woody Allen's Oscar-winning picture 'Annie Hall' (1977).

Early life and career
Kishio Christopher Ishii, Chris in short, was born in 1919 in Caruthers, Fresno County, California, as a son of a Japanese farmer. However, there is a possibility that Ishii was born in Kobe, Japan. Alex Jay of the Stripper's Guide blog discovered that the U.S. Federal Census of 1920 mentioned that the Ishii family still lived in Kobe at the time of Kishio's birth. It wasn't until 12 June 1920 before they moved to Seatlle, Washington, and found a home there on 1 July. Ishii studied at the Chouinard School of Art in Los Angeles (nowadays Cal Arts, Valencia, California). In 1940, he was one of several Japanese-American animators working for the Walt Disney Studios, alongside other legends like Wah Ming Chang, Gyo Fujikawa, Masao Kawaguchi, Bob KuwaharaTom Okamoto, Milton Quon, James Tanaka and Tyrus Wong. He worked on various 'Mickey Mouse' and 'Donald Duck' shorts and animated feature films like 'Fantasia' (1940), 'The Reluctant Dragon' (1941) and 'Dumbo' (1941). By November 1940 he was an assistant to Ward Kimball. However, in May 1941 he joined several other Disney animators in a strike, demanding higher fees and the right to unionize. These demands were eventually met, but afterwards, some animators, like Ishii, chose to seek a different job.


One of Chris Ishii's cartoons, capturing the identity struggles Japanese-American citizens endured during the war.

Little Neebo
On 7 December 1941, the Japanese army attacked the U.S. military base Pearl Harbor, causing the U.S. to declare war on Japan and officially enter the Second World War. Ishii instantly wanted to join the U.S. Army, as he always felt more American than Japanese, but was turned down for having slightly flat feet. Eventually his draft board classified him 1-A, which meant that he could sign up after all, but in the post-Pearl Harbor anti-Japanese fear, paranoia and hostility, his draft number was changed to 4-C (meaning "Alien or Dual National"). When President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered Executive Order 9066, all first and second generation Japanese-Americans were interned in the Santa Anita Assembly Center in Santa Anita, California. There were no exceptions for people born on U.S. soil and naturalized citizens. Over 2,000 Japanese-Americans were sent to this detention center, including Ishii and his family in April 1942. Other (future) Japanese-American cartoonists who were incarcerated in American concentration camps at that time wereRosie Arima, Willie Ito, Jack Ito, Harry Kuwada, Bob Kuwahara, Bennie Nobori, Eddie Sato, Esther Takei, Tom Okamoto, Iwao Takamoto and Tom Yabu.


The Granada Pioneer and Lil' Neebo say goodbye to Chris Ishii on 16 December 1942. Tom Okamoto continued the strip for one of two episodes, until Jack Ito became the new cartoonist in late December 1942.

While imprisoned, Ishii still continued his cartooning activities. He taught art at Santa Anita and the Amache night school. On 15 May 1942, he introduced a comic strip in the camp newspaper Santa Anita Pacemaker, starring a Japanese orphan boy. Readers were invited to come up with the name for this "lost kid". On 22 May, Mary Oyama Mittwer's suggestion was selected and the character was named "Lil' Neebo", with Neebo being a contamination of the words "Nisei boy" ("second generation boy"). 'Lil' Neebo' (1942-1945) started out as just a comic strip, but grew so popular with inmates that Ishii was allowed to draw an entire gag page. Neebo was also featured in puppet shows performed at the camps.

The comics continued in the Santa Anita Pacemaker until the camp was closed in September 1942. All prisoners were transferred to the Granada Relocation Center in Amache, Colorado, where Ishii continued his art lectures. 'Nisei Boy' ran in the camp newspaper Granada Pioneer for four months until December 1942, after which Ishii was finally accepted for military service. After his departure, 'Nisei Boy' was continued successively by Tom Okamoto and Jack Ito until at least the end of 1944.


Artwork for Stars and Stripes, 29 December 1946.

Military service and Nisei Progressives
During his military service from 1942 until 1946, Ishii illustrated propaganda leaflets for the U.S. War Information Office, as part of the Military Intelligence Service. His artwork also appeared in the military magazine Stars and Stripes. He served in India, China and Burma. He met his future wife Afa Suffiad in Shanghai, China. They got married and by 1946, she immigrated to the U.S. with him. The pair enjoyed a long marriage and had three children. Between 1946 and 1949, they lived in Los Angeles. Thanks to his military duty, Ishii was able to thwart anti-Japanese sentiments directed at him and his family. For a period of one year, he returned to the Disney Studios as an animator. The former military sergeant was additionally a courtroom sketch artist for the Pacific Citizen during the trial against Iva Toguri, a woman falsely accused of being been the Japanese wartime radio propagandist "Tokyo Rose". As a result, Ishiil came under scrutiny by the FBI too, both for his courtroom sketches and his association with the Nisei Progressives, a liberal organization suspected of being a Communist front.

The Nisei Progressives advocated reparations for Japanese-American citizens who had suffered under the wartime internments in U.S. camps and subsequent racial discrimination. Ishii was an editor and illustrator for both the Nisei magazine The Independent and the newsletter of the L.A. chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, The Vanguard. His cartoons also appeared in Crossroads, an all-English magazine aimed at the Japanese-American population of Los Angeles. Under the platform Wallace/Nisei, the Nisei Progressives supported Progressive Party politician Henry Wallace as a third candidate during the 1948 U.S. presidential elections. When Wallace lost, the Nisei Progressives continued their activism under their own name. The anti-Communist witch hunts under McCarthyism eventually led to the disbandment of the Nisei Progressives by 1952.


Courtroom sketch of Iva Toguri, published in The Pacific Citizen of 3 September 1949.

UPA
In 1949, Ishii moved to New York City, where he worked for the Tempo Productions animation studio, while also illustrating covers and interior pages of Reporter Magazine. Between 1951 and 1952, he studied art under the G.I. bill at the Académie Julian in Paris, France. In 1952, Ishii and his family moved to Dobbs Ferry, New York City, where he lived for the rest of his life. Two years later, he became a designer and lay-out artist at the UPA studios, a company best known for their 'Gerald McBoing Boing' and 'Mr. Magoo' cartoons. At the time, UPA achieved a lot of good press for their innovative graphic stylization. They had a strong aesthetic influence on many Hollywood cartoon studios, mostly because their limited animation was money-saving, making it perfect for TV productions. When Gene Deitch left UPA in 1956, Ishii succeeded him as artistic supervisor of the company's New York department.

Later animation work
In 1965, Ishii and two business partners founded their own film production company, Focus Productions. He was creative director of the 1974 animated TV special for Mad Magazine, which featured animated versions of comic features made by the magazine's "usual gang of idiots". Even though the special perfectly captured Mad's style with quality animation, no TV channel dared to broadcast it because executives felt the content was "too family unfriendly for prime time."


Still from the animated sequence in Woody Allen's 'Annie Hall' (1977).

Turning freelance in 1975, Ishii directed the animated sequence in Woody Allen's classic live-action tragicomedy 'Annie Hall' (1977). In the film, Allen's character has a flashback to when he was a child and felt the Witch in Disney's 'Snow White' was kind of attractive. Ishii animated the sequence in a Disneyesque style. The cartoon version of Allen was based on the way Stuart Hample drew the comedian in the newspaper comic 'Inside Woody Allen'. As a result, many people have incorrectly assumed Hample animated this sequence instead of Ishii.

Recognition
Chris Ishii won two Clio Awards for his animated TV commercials.

Final years and death
Chris Ishii passed away in 2001 in Dobbs Ferry, New York, USA, from an aortic aneurysm. His son Christopher Ishii is active as camera and sound man.


Photo of Chris Ishii drawing for the Pacific Citizen (14 December 1946).

Ink Slinger profile on the Stripper's Guide

Series and books by Chris Ishii in stock in the Lambiek Webshop:

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